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Sunday, November 19, 2006

Happy Feet

Anybody who’s been to the Essex Cinemas in the past few months has got to have seen the huge banners hanging from the ceiling with the brightly colored scenes of dancing penguins announcing the coming of Novemburrrr’s much-anticipated animated family film Happy Feet. Well, finally, it’s here, and I can guarantee you that if you see this one it won’t just be your feet that leave happy.

What a joyous blend of animation, voice talent, music, and choreography! Choreography, you say? That’s right. This is a movie about dancing, and the director, George Miller (Babe: Pig in the City), brilliantly recruited Broadway tap legend Savion Glover (Bamboozled) to create the choreography, then put together a dance troupe who would dress in skin tight leotards covered with motion-sensitive dots and dance the numbers to be seen in the movie while they were being filmed so that their movements could then be captured and mapped into a computer and used by the artists to animate the penguin characters and give them the ability to dance with the precision of professional entertainers. Complicated? It’s the same technique that gave us Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the title character in Peter Jackson’s version of King Kong.

Dancing alone, however, wouldn’t make
Happy Feet sparkle with the success it is bound to achieve. Thank the actors behind the birds, the remarkable animators and a compelling story for that.

Elijah Wood voices the main character, Mumble, a blue-eyed Emperor penguin who, at least to me, even bore a faint resemble to his human counterpart in his facial expressions and those mesmerizing baby blues. Mumble is a terrific enough guy, but he is an outsider in his world because he has no ability to sing, which is how his species attracts their mates, with a heart-song. His father Memphis (Hugh Jackman; The Prestige) is ashamed of Mumble because, for a reason only he knows, the boy was born “different.” Instead of having the ability to sing like the other penguins, Mumble is moved to dance when he feels emotion. Dancing, according to the community’s elder statesman Noah (Hugo Weaving; The Matrix trilogy) is not only disturbing, it is responsible for the food shortage that is plaguing them now. Soon our happy-go-lucky feathered Fred Astaire becomes a pariah to everyone in his own flock, and he vows to find the real source of the food disappearance to prove it is not because he loves to dance.

So begins Mumble’s adventure that, in some ways parallels Dorothy’s journey through Oz. Along his way to solve the mystery that will let him go home again he meets an array of odd characters, the most notable being Ramon, played in all his usual hyper glee by Robin Williams (RV) in a Latin accent characteristic of his species, a South American penguin. Ramon and his posse of penguins, who all share a certain bravado (a nicer way of saying they think they are the best thing since sliced bread), are quite taken by Mumble’s dancing abilities and are more that happy to help him in his quest by pointing him in the direction of the great and powerful Guru, aka Lovelace (also voiced by Robin Williams in what adult viewers may recognize as an homage to Barry White). Lovelace is this community’s version of The Wizard of Oz, as revered and just as phony. Still, Lovelace is not without his charms and assistance, and even though he doesn’t know the answers to Mumble’s questions, he is able to direct him further along his search and, as fate would have it, he also joins the band of travelers.

There are some extremely dark and frightening scenes in
Happy Feet and parents of impressionable young children should consider talking to their kids before the movie to remind them that the scary parts are not really real. There are attacks by a seal, a pair of killer whales, and even some extremely threatening birds that pop up unexpectedly and gave this old-enough-to-know-better viewer a couple of jumps in my seat and a tightness in my chest at the graphic almost-devouring of our hero and his friends, so if it can get to me I’m sure there are some in the stroller set that might find themselves with bad dreams after seeing the movie. There’s nothing worse than that. I’ve been having a reoccurring nightmare for the past two weeks now, so I know of which I speak. In my dream, I hear a knock at the door and when I answer it Donald Rumsfeld is standing there with his suitcase. Now that he is out of a job he has come to live with me he says. That’s when I wake up screaming. You know, I think I’d rather have the killer whales, but, as I’m known to do, I digress.

Mumble’s quest for answers does eventually come to fruition, but with a horrible personal price for our tuxedoed tap dancer and what happens to him may open a few eyes to think about how we, as humans, unconsciously or uncaringly affect the lives of entire species without regard to the ultimate impact our actions have to the environment. This is just one of several
themes throughout Happy Feet, but none of the lessons comes with heavy handed preaching except one, and that is at the climax of the film, when Mumble finally finds his way back to his flock and is reunited with his despondent father, his mother Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman; Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus), his posse, and the girl he always loved but couldn’t sing to, Gloria (Brittany Murphy; The Dead Girl).

After all he has seen and experienced in his travels Mumble has learned the
greatest lesson of all ~ to love himself for who is and not what everybody else wants him to be. And so he dances. And then his father dances. And then his mother and Gloria. Soon, the entire commune is dancing, hundreds of them, and, as planned, Mumble and his penguin pals are filmed by humans studying Mumble’s odd behavior. Needless to say, these “aliens” who have taken all the fish in their enormous ships are so enraptured by what they have found at the South Pole it becomes an international incident, a call for a ban on fishing and a demand to preserve the penguins and make them an endangered species. All because of the odd little bird with the Happy Feet.

The animation in
Happy Feet is by far the most state-of-the-art ever seen. It is almost impossible in some scenes to tell if you are watching a videotaped or an animated scene the crispness of the colors, the detail of the feathers, the movement in the eyes, is all so clear and perfect. I found myself absolutely amazed that in the tiny one eye showing in Memphis’ profile when his long-lost son returns home and calls out “Pa!” the animators could infuse feelings of surprise, regret, wonder, and joy all in such a static “canvas.” I mean, really, penguins don’t have much to work with when it comes to facial expressions. The beak eliminates the smile, the head is deep, dark black, so it shows no movement of expression (kind of like Joan Rivers after her weekly Botox party), and they don’t have much in the way of cheeks. The artists really had to work the eyes, and they succeeded admirably.

The writers, too, deserve credit for putting together a great story that a lot of people will identify with. Director Miller collaborated with Aussie actors Warren Coleman and Judy Morris (who also wrote Babe: Pig in the City) and John Collee (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World), a surprising choice considering his work has centered on serious dramas in the past.

Mumble’s tale can be interpreted in any number of ways and will no doubt hit a nerve with any viewers who have ever felt disenfranchised, rejected, or made fun of for being different from the majority. I’m sure some will equate
Mumble’s family estrangement as a statement about how gays are often treated, just as some will see the overpowering belligerence in Noah the Elder’s preaching as a blatant indictment of fundamentalism and its mind control and manipulation of the masses. The truth is Happy Feet holds many mirrors up at our human foibles and shows them to us through a wacky kaleidoscope that disguises the view and cloaks these serious problems by making them more palatable when seen as the problems of penguins. Perhaps in this guise people may be able to at least consider that changing their treatment of others and expanding their tolerance of those who are a bit different might not be as overwhelming a task as it may have otherwise seemed.

Overall, Happy Feet offers a beautiful panorama of a mythical life in Antarctica that will leave you a whole lot happier than when you went in the theater. It will put a bounce in your step, a smile on your face, and have you longing for more. It’s not often you find an animated movie with such heart that adults will want to see it again and again, but I’ll confess it is the first time I can remember ever sitting through a film twice in a row just because I loved it so much, but Happy Feet made me that darned happy! You want some relief from the Thanksgiving stress this week? Put on your dancing shoes and two-step it down to the Essex Cinemas for what is bound to become a classic.

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